Early on in his undergraduate years at Santa Cruz University, Wisdom Cole was channeling his talent for math and science toward a career in medicine.
That was until the first-generation American and Nigerian immigrant noticed how few people in his college science classes looked like him.
After Mr. Cole took an education class highlighting how few black and brown students entered science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions, he felt impelled to change tack.
“I switched my career path to be more about education, and how can I contribute more to creating an equitable world where I can see more students from backgrounds like me … see themselves as scientists or mathematicians,” says Cole, now a high school math teacher in his first year at the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco.
Yet despite his strong resolve, Cole struggles with a question many teachers of color, particularly in urban districts, face: Will he stay in teaching or burn out of the classroom within the first few years?
The answer to that question, educators and researchers say, is still too frequently the latter, depriving most of the nation’s minority students of the stability and proven benefits of learning from teachers that look like them. Teaching is already a high-pressure job, but research shows teachers of color face additional pressures that often make them leave at higher rates than their white colleagues, who still make up more than 80 percent of America’s teacher force.
While educators say there is no single reason – and thus, no single solution – for the leaky minority teacher pipeline, a number of district-level and grassroots programs that have sprung up in urban centers over the past 15 years are preparing and supporting new teachers in ways that have boosted retention. Experts say they can be models for broader school reform. These programs include the Boston Teacher Residency and the San Francisco Teacher Residency, which aim to recruit a workforce reflective of the diversity of the urban districts they serve, and others like the Black Teacher Project of Oakland, Calif., or Call Me MiSTER of Clemson, S.C., which are devoted to recruiting and retaining minority teachers.
“Over the last few decades all the efforts have focused on recruitment but not on retention,” says Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania who contributed to an Albert Shanker Institute report on teacher diversity. “The recruitment of minority teachers has more than doubled in the last 25 years – a sort of unheralded victory – but recruitment alone isn’t going to do it. If the retention rate among minority teachers went up, that could begin to make a difference.”
Between 1987 and 2012 the number of minority teachers nationwide jumped from roughly 330,000 to 666,000 or 104 percent, compared with white non-Hispanic teachers, which grew from about 2.3 million to 3.2 million or 38 percent.
The number of teachers of color being recruited also grew faster than the number of minority students, from around 12 million to 24 million or roughly 93 percent, according to the Albert Shanker report: The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education. Minority students now make up half of America’s K-12 population.
Life with 11 roommates
However, since the mid-1990s, the report says, teachers of color have been leaving the profession at higher rates than their non-minority counterparts.
“Some teachers ... get burned out. It's far more than just a 7:30 to 3:30 job,” says Richard Milner, a professor of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh. “You start to get invested in the lives and the potential of students and that can be psychologically draining. In a lot of ways, they see themselves in the students.”
The pressures Cole explains mirror those in the research.
“What does it mean to be a black teacher working with students of color? I take that very seriously,” says Cole. He feels it’s so important to live in the same community as his students, he resides in a house with 12 people, due to San Francisco’s astronomical rents. That isn't sustainable long term.
“Leaving the profession could become a reality for me," he says. "I want to continue to push through, but I’m feeling that pressure.”
Teachers of color say they also are frustrated they don’t have enough autonomy to teach in ways that are culturally relevant to their students, or to adapt their teaching to what they’ve observed about students’ learning styles. Additionally, being a minority among the staff – Cole, for example, is one of only two black men on a staff of about 30 – means teachers of color often feel they don’t have enough of a voice when it comes to proposing reforms or changes to the curriculum. Perhaps most worryingly, they say they don't feel they have the ability to lead the school in recognizing hidden racial biases that they see as a large contributor to the persistent achievement gap among students of color.
Yet despite all those pressures, Cole is statistically far more likely to persist in the profession than some of his fellow teachers of color might. The reason: He got qualified through a so-called “alternative” teacher preparation program, which are shown to recruit and retain at higher rates.
Discounted tuition and apprenticeships
Last year, he did his master’s degree through the San Francisco Teacher Residency.
The SFTR takes on a diverse cohort of around 30 students each year. Partnered with Stanford and the University of San Francisco, the cohort gets their master's in education over one year. In addition, the program includes a one-year apprenticeship at the elbow of an experienced teacher, collaborative learning with a cohort (a sense of isolation among teachers of color is often a key reason for leaving the profession), classes focused on creating equitable classrooms, three years of mentoring, and discounted tuition.
In 2015-16, SFTR had recruited a higher percentage of teachers of color, 66 percent compared with a districtwide 53 percent. Furthermore, 81 percent of its cohort of STEM teachers were either teachers of color and/or women. SFTR also boasts retention rates above district and national averages, with 80 percent of all its alumni having taught at least five years within the district, compared with 50 percent of the broader school district, and national averages.
Educators say that currently recruitment and retention programs have been very successful, but on a small scale – SFTR, for example, has trained about 175 teachers to date. The Albert Shanker report lists another eight programs it sees as doing substantial work, and experts also pointed to Teach Tomorrow in Oakland and the Black Teacher Project as standouts.
Educators say the models are strong and could be scalable, but only if state and federal politicians are willing to reroute some of the nation's $620 billion education budget toward such programs.
“Very few of the solutions are systematic at all,” says Jesse Solomon, executive director of the Boston Teacher Residency program, whose retention rates also exceed district and national averages. Big urban centers currently only retain about half of all new teachers beyond three years, he adds.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Oh, here’s a cool program, or here’s a neat idea,’ but … there's 300 million people here. Building better systems will take us a lot farther than one more cool program that gets us a couple of thousand people, right?”
Recognizing that, there is one positive reason experts point to why teachers of color leave the classroom: to become administrators or academics and push for change on a broader basis.
“I left the classroom to go and get a doctorate to do teacher education,” says Iesha Jackson, a postdoctoral research scholar at Arizona State University, whose research is aimed at improving educational outcomes for students of color in urban schools. “That’s part of the story that doesn’t get told – [teachers of color] may be leaving the classroom, but staying in the profession.”
The growing number of initiatives themselves are a reason for hope, Mr. Solomon says. “There’s always been efforts to prepare [teachers of color] well, but now I think we’re doing a better job of it as a country.”